Johnson, Sturgeon, Corbyn and the price of radical certainty

There is no trait in politics more terrifying than certainty. Conviction is good, vision is fine; but a leader or party without doubts is always a cause for concern.

British politics is still feeling the after-effects of a prolonged bout of radical certainty. This may help explain the remarkable fact that the three most important political leaders at the last election, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon now find their reputations trashed by scandals. In different ways the UK’s three major parties have all blown up in recent years.

Johnson’s final humiliation, a consequence of lying to parliament, is the culmination of a career of rule-breaking and dishonesty. Corbyn has been blocked from standing again for Labour as part of his successor’s efforts to erase the stain of antisemitism. Sturgeon’s plight is different. Both she and her husband have been arrested and released without charge as part of a police inquiry into financial misconduct by the Scottish National party. She denies any wrongdoing and is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But even if she is cleared, her reputation and party have been tarnished — not least because her troubles can be linked to her style of leadership.

Though the three cases vary, there are common threads in the warnings they offer about the dangers of populism and political monomania.

This is not a complaint about Brexit, Corbynism or Scottish independence per se, though I disagree with all three. It is about the fusion of certainty with unfeasible radicalism. For certainty, unlike conviction, struggles to coexist with pragmatism and compromise.

What marks the leaderships of Johnson, Corbyn and Sturgeon (one might add Liz Truss) is the primacy of a revolutionary zeal that refuses to be tempered by economic and political realities, combined with fanatical supporters and the concentration of power in a purist vanguard. 

Johnson and Corbyn became leaders not because their parties believed they would be good at governing — they knew they would not be — but as vehicles for a faction’s goals. Corbyn’s close allies viewed him as a cipher of their socialist cause; Johnson’s supporters believed he would win the election that secured Brexit and could then be controlled. In both cases personal failings were ignored or dismissed as smears. The flaws mattered less than the cause.

The SNP is more complex. Nationalist populism is its raison d’être and Sturgeon was no figurehead but the astute and undisputed chief. Her current travails spring from her fierce control of her party, not least the insanity of persisting with her husband as its chief executive. The goal of independence unites her party but masks an array of other policy cracks. Those who questioned her judgments were marginalised. Again, the cause justified all.

There are other common traits. The cause always excuses the leader and justifies the means. Johnson’s Brexiters unlawfully suspended parliament, vilified individual judges and rubbished the institution whose primacy they had supposedly campaigned to restore. All three parties suffered splits and splinter groups as critics were purged or cast aside. Certainty breeds a contempt that turns opponents into enemies and traitors. All depict a war with a sinister elite upon which failures can be blamed. (London, Brussels, the economic establishment, the blob.)

Campaigning trumps delivery. For all Sturgeon’s style and emotional intelligence, good government was subordinated to the cause, to fuelling grievances with England and securing a new independence referendum.

Johnson evinced little interest in the hard graft of governing, delegating to a variety of lieutenants, often with conflicting ideas. Corbyn, an eternal campaigner, was a weak leader often paralysed by difficult decisions.

All engaged in fantasy policies. Johnson and Sturgeon refused to acknowledge the immense practical problems of their independence goals. Corbyn delivered unfunded promise after promise.

The UK has seen radical leaders before. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher had tight cliques and strong convictions but both were pragmatic, immersed themselves in detail and cared about what worked. Contrary to her image, Thatcher was often racked with doubt. Both had senior colleagues who offered alternative counsel for most of their premiership. They fell only when convictions gave way to certainties.

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer have restored normal service. Both have their inner circles and ruthless streaks but are by nature more technocratic, more focused on delivery. Sunak has shown a readiness to subordinate his convictions to circumstances.

And yet what was true before can be true again. In Westminster, activists have seen that the most effective way to advance a hardline ideology is to enter and take control of a party. Johnson has made the Tories more susceptible to the electoral appeal of populism and contemptuous of key institutions. After election defeat they could revert. The SNP may be quelled, the cause remains popular.

It may be that the UK has had its fill of radical certainty for now. But political discourse, once debased, is hard to restore entirely and bad actors remain ready to stoke up anger and falsehood. The parties may now be convalescing, the country will need longer to recover.

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